Yeltsin Ends Frenetic Campaign Before a Cheering Hometown Crowd
YEKATERINBURG, Russia (AP) _ Cheered by joyous hometown crowds in a festival of balloons, sunshine and rock music, Boris Yeltsin topped off his come-from-behind presidential campaign Friday by promising ``we’ll surely win″ if his supporters stick together.
Nothing could have contrasted more with the scene here in February, when Yeltsin announced his re-election bid in a rambling, confused speech to a sullen audience of dignitaries.
On Friday, crowds turned out to collect free Yeltsin hats and T-shirts and hold aloft posters echoing Yeltsin’s warnings that his Communist rival, Gennady Zyuganov, would ratchet the nation back to Communist-era poverty. The posters showed Zyuganov with the ominous legend, ``Use Your Last Chance to Buy Food.″
Friday was the last day of campaigning allowed before Sunday’s vote, which most Russians see as a choice between Yeltsin’s reforms and the Soviet past, symbolized by Zyuganov.
While polls in recent weeks have put Yeltsin ahead, one released Friday had him essentially tied with Zyuganov. Pollster Nuzgar Betaneli gave Zyuganov 35.6 percent of voter support, compared to 32.7 percent for Yeltsin. The poll had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.
However, four months of frenetic campaigning have given Yeltsin the momentum over Zyuganov, the one-time front-runner.
Unless one of the 10 candidates gets a majority Sunday, the election will be decided in a runoff in early July between the top two vote-getters.
Russian newspapers ran front-page banner headlines endorsing their favorite candidate and made passionate appeals fitting to the highly emotional race, Russia’s first post-Soviet presidential election.
Yeltsin’s upbeat appearance in the Ural Mountains city where he was once Communist Party boss contrasted sharply with his last visit in February, when he launched his campaign with a disjointed speech.
Tens of thousands turned out on a sunny day to greet the 65-year-old native son at a rally in a riverside, tree-lined square. Russian rock bands provided entertainment.
The city, where Russia’s last czar, Nicholas II, and his family were killed in 1918, was plastered with Yeltsin campaign posters.
Surrounded by his family _ his wife, two daughters and grandchildren _ Yeltsin beamed as he said victory was certain.
``We are moving ahead resolutely,″ he said in a speech often interrupted by applause. ``In five years, we have accomplished a lot, and we have learned a lot. We must not retreat. We must stay together, and then we’ll surely win, we’ll certainly win.″
Despite some disillusionment, support for Yeltsin appears high in Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fifth-largest city with 1.4 million residents.
Svetlana Zhuravlyova sells pastries in the street to augment her salary at a failing defense plant, which has given her only half-pay for the past few months. Yet she won’t vote for the Communists; she’s supporting Yeltsin.
``I don’t want any more changes. The Russian people are sick of experiments,″ she said.
Four months ago, Zyuganov was nominated before a huge, near-euphoric crowd. Yeltsin’s popularity since has climbed due to his aggressive campaign and a truckload of promises _ more than he can deliver by election day.
In February, he promised Russians that all back payments would be made up by the end of March. Frustrated voters who still haven’t received overdue pensions, wages or other benefits may hold that against him on Sunday.
While generally well-received on the campaign trail, Yeltsin has been badgered by people angry at not having received the promised payments.
A top Yeltsin campaign aide, Sergei Filatov, said in Moscow that ``tension is growing in some regions, mainly because of delays in the payment of wages,″ the ITAR-Tass news agency reported.
More than 1,000 international election observers began arriving Friday to monitor the election. They will join hundreds of thousands of Russian observers expected at the country’s 93,500 polling stations.
Yeltsin and Zyuganov each accuse the other of planning to rig the vote; both have vowed to send representatives to every polling place.
Zyuganov dismisses the Kremlin’s claims that he and his hard-line supporters will cheat, then stir up civil war if they lose the election.
``Our supporters do not want civil unrest and I think they will be as reserved as possible,″ Zyuganov, who also is predicting victory, said in an interview with Cable News Network. ``If Mr. Yeltsin and his bunch do not stage civil unrest, this country will be all set.″